They ran on equal parts of brotherly love, vicious adolescent rivalry and Canadian Club. For over ten years, Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers made joyous music together five or six nights a week,...
They ran on equal parts of brotherly love, vicious adolescent rivalry and Canadian Club. For over ten years, Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers made joyous music together five or six nights a week, first in the tiny taverns that dot Chicago's South Side ghetto, later in clubs, colleges and concert halls literally around the world.
They were quite a sight on the bandstand. Hound Dog, perched on his folding chair, stomping both feet to keep time, grinning his millions-of-teeth grin, pausing between songs only long enough to light up a Pall Mall and tell a totally incomprehensible joke (which he'd interrupt halfway through, cackling with laughter and burying his face in his hand) before tearing into another no-holds-barred boogie. Phillips (no one ever called him Brewer) with his broken teeth and crooked smile dancing in the aisles, his vintage Fender Telecaster strung around his neck like some giant pendant, his shirt tail hanging out, kicking his leg in the air as he squeezed out a high note, occasionally grabbing the mike to sing in a voice as battered as his guitar. Ted Harvey, his hair clipped tight to his head, yelling out encouragement from behind his minimal drum set, chomping out the rhythm on the wad of gum in his mouth, sometimes drifting off to sleep without ever missing a beat, until Phillips would sneak up behind him in mid-song and wake him with a slap across the back of the head.
They were inseparable, and they played together like brothers, sensing each other's musical twists and turns before they happened, feeding energy and good spirits from one to the other. They fought like brothers too, as they crisscrossed the country from gig to gig in Hound Dog's old Ford station wagon, arguing constantly about who was the best lover, who had the best woman, who was the best mayor Chicago ever had, who was or wasn't out of tune the night before. The arguments weren't always in fun, either. From time to time a knife appeared, and finally even a gun.
They made a lot of noise for three men with two guitars and a drum set. Between the incredible distortion from Hound Dog's supercheap Japanese guitar, the sustain from his brass-lined steel slide (made from the leg of a kitchen chair), the sheet-metal tone of Phillips' ancient Fender, their cracked-speaker amplifiers, and Ted's simple, kickass drumming, they could indeed rock the house
They played amazingly long sets, two or three hours of driving boogies and shuffles mixed with the occasional slow blues. It was music born in the Deep South juke joints, when electric guitars were still something new and bass guitars were unheard of, music for all-night dancing and partying. The purists called them a blues band, but Hound Dog called it rock and roll.
Hound Dog was already playing guitar and piano when he came to Chicago from Mississippi in 1942 at the age of 27 (He used to haul an upright piano to Delta fish fries on a mule-drawn wagon). But he was strictly an amateur musician. He moved in with his sister Lucy in the neighborhood around 39th & Indiana in the heart of the ghetto, a neighborhood he lived in for the rest of his life. He found a day job as a short order cook, and on Sunday mornings he played for tips at the Maxwell Street open-air market, competing for attention with unknowns like Muddy Waters and Robert Nighthawk.
It wasn't until 1955, when Hound Dog lost his last job building TV cabinets, that he began trying to make his living as a musician. He played with almost every guitarist and drummer in the city until he chose a construction worker named Phillips in 1959 and a shipping clerk named Ted in 1965 as the official HouseRockers.
By pricing his band lower than any other on the South Side (when I met them in 1970, the whole band was making $45 a night), Hound Dog was able to get gigs at taverns that usually couldn't afford a band. And by pumping out non-stop music and clowning, he drew one of the most loyal crowds in town. Hound Dog and the HouseRockers played some of the seediest clubs in Chicago, clubs that held fifty or a hundred people (who were usually dancing frantically in the aisles), clubs that didn't even have a bandstand, just a space cleared of tables where the band could squeeze in. Their favorite gig was the Sunday afternoon jam at Florence's at 54th Place and Shields, a gig they held for over ten years. On Sundays at Florence's, you were likely to run into Big Walter Horton, Magic Slim, Carey Bell, Lefty Dizz, Son Seals, Lee Jackson, Big MooseWalker, Lonnie Brooks, Left Hand Frank or Johnny Embry, all waiting to sit in with Hound Dog.
When Wes Race and I recorded them, we did our best to create the atmosphere of one of those club gigs in the sterile environment of Sound Studios. We couldn't bring in all their friends and fans, but we did bring in the same battered amps, cranked them up to the same maximum volume, poured the whiskey, and the band cut the same songs they played every Sunday at Florence 's because they wouldn't rehearse and hated to play the same song twice. We cut two albums in two nights, recording twenty songs a night and choosing among the best takes for the albums. We released Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers in 1971 and Natural Boogie in 1973, and the songs on this album were recorded and mixed at the same sessions.
After the release of their first album, their three lives changed dramatically. They went on the road, first to Midwest clubs, then to New England colleges, then to New York concert halls, and finally even to Australia and New Zealand. They established fanatical followings in college-town clubs like the Kove in Kent, Ohio and Joe's Place in Cambridge (where they often played six nights a week for three weeks straight to packed houses, and an unknown acoustic guitarist named George Thorogood opened the shows). They gave three fantastically successful performances at the Ann Arbor Blues Festivals and headlined festivals in Miami, Washington and Buffalo. They played Philharmonic Hall in New York, the Auditorium in Chicago and literally hundreds of other gigs around the country. Rolling Stone printed a feature on them. They even appeared on nationwide Canadian early morning television (where Hound Dog told everyone how happy he was to be visiting the home of Canadian Club).
When I think back on the four years I managed, booked, recorded, drove and carried equipment for Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers, dozens of incidents crowd into my mind:
- Hound Dog shaking the sleeping Ted Harvey after seven or eight hundred miles on the road, and commanding him to ''wake up and argue!";
- the delight of the band in locating a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Melbourne after they had decided they were going to starve to death rather than eat Australian food;
- a late-night slide guitar duel to the death with J.B. Hutto at Alice's Revisited in Chicago, with no clear-cut winner;
- Hound Dog's pride at being introducd by B.B. King to the audience at the posh London House night club;
- Ted falling asleep in a huge shipping carton backstage before a crucial concert and being found only seconds before showtime;
- Hound Dog sitting up all night in a Toronto hotel room with the lights, TV and radio on, because he was afraid to go to sleep and have another one of his dreams about being chased by wolves;
- Phillips stepping in to save me from a knife-wielding drunk outside of Florence's;
- and Hound Dog, dying in his hospital bed, desperately hanging on to life until Phillips finally relented and came to visit him and put to rest their most serious (and violent) argument. Brothers indeed.
Hound Dog died on December 17, 1975. Phillips and Ted are still playing on the South Side, and they still visit Hound Dog's wife, Fredda. And they still talk about him and his musicians as do thousands of fans. But Hound Dog said it best -- ''When I die, they'll say, 'he couldn't play shit, but he sure made it sound good!' ''